The Honolulu Zoo wants to bring Japanese giant salamanders to Hawaii, an idea that might be helped by the recent signing of a “sister zoo” agreement last month with the Asa Zoo in Hiroshima.

They’re known as Ōsanshōuo, or “giant pepper fish.” When frightened, it secretes an ooze that smells like sansho pepper, a common seasoning for unagi.

They’re not a fish, though. Salamanders are amphibians. They’re also losing their natural habitat to development and invasive species, and susceptible to the chytrid fungus that’s infecting amphibians worldwide.

From left, Joe Schmick, Laura Debnar and Baird Fleming, check out a giant salamander during a visit to Japan. Debnar and Fleming work for the Honolulu Zoo.

Yuki Taguchi/Hanzaki Institute

Giant salamanders are considered living fossils. They have, in the words of Assistant Honolulu Zoo Director Baird Fleming, “remained unchanged for 150 million years.”

In fact, they’re considered a natural monument in Japan, and exceedingly hard to bring to the United States.

“There’s only 21 of these in the entire country,”  Fleming said, “and many of them are at the Smithsonian National Zoo.”

The attempt to bring them to Honolulu started off as “a cool pipe dream,” said Laura Debnar, reptile/amphibian and Children’s Zoo coordinator.

It was aided by the fact that Lois Yoshikawa’s mother-in-law lives in Hiroshima. On a family vacation, Yoshikawa, who works in human resources at the zoo, met with officials at the Asa Zoo, and she must’ve been charming.

“They were excited,” Yoshikawa said about the prospect of working with the Honolulu Zoo.

Then came the paperwork. The Honolulu Zoo had to show the Hawaii Department of Agriculture that it could keep the salamanders contained and safe. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species includes strict requirements on transporting the animals, as well as a commitment toward preserving the species.  The Honolulu Zoo’s Conservation Committee made a deal to provide the Hanzaki Institute in Japan $2,000 a year.

Months ago, Fleming, Debnar, and her husband Joe Schmick, a water filtration specialist, took vacation time to visit Hiroshima to meet with officials at the Hanzaki Institute and Asa Zoo, setting the stage for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to meet with zoo officials on his trip to Hiroshima in August.

The salamander is significant in the culture of Japan. When school kids do word problems, they often use salamanders as examples.

“Everything they do seems to revolve around the salamander,” Debnar said.  “The signs on the school, it’s on logos, pillows, drawings, art.”

The Honolulu Zoo had an original design for a new reptile and amphibian complex. Fleming said the city had budgeted $1.5 million for the complex, but a construction bid came back at $5 million.

Still, it has has places to keep giant salamanders now, and an order for special water pumps is on standby if and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues an import permit.

This is all not just to have some rare specimens on display. There are strong ties between Hawaii and Hiroshima, a point stressed by Honolulu Zoo officials.

Fleming said the commitment to preserving the habitat in Japan is at the core of the zoo’s mission.

He doesn’t use the word “speciman.” Instead, he said, “when we’re hosting an ambassador of the species, it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help the species.

“We’re trying to position the Honolulu Zoo as a leading authority in the state on conservation matters.”

About the Author